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From Yoni’s Desk: Health before politics in fragmented Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, is presented with the mandate to form a new government by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem Sept. 25, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Uriel Heilman spoke for a lot of people in Israel last week – somewhere in the range of 100,000 people, to be accurate. The director of business development at 70 Faces Media, parent company of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (one of The CJN’s long-standing partners), along with his wife and four children, were sent into quarantine in Israel after returning from a trip to northern Italy, where the spread of the coronavirus has been particularly rampant. Like so many in the Jewish state – and amid heightening travel restrictions, that number is expected to grow, unless or until Israel closes its borders entirely – they were stuck trying to make the best of a tough situation.

Midway through the 14-day quarantine, Heilman wrote, “Our living room was littered with board games, Legos and the remains of half-finished art projects. We were starting to run low on some essentials, and I realized with dismay one day at lunchtime that I somehow had forgotten to change out of my pyjamas.”

The family was trying to stay positive, with a lot of help from friends and family, and a bit of humour along the way. But the effects of quarantine are very real: “As we count down the days, trying to keep our nervousness at bay every time someone coughs or has a headache,” Heilman admitted, “we’re reading the news about the virus’ spread with growing alarm. Already, friends and family on distant continents have been subject to quarantine, too.”

Here in Canada, we can be thankful that it hasn’t come to that, at least not yet. But the coronavirus has nonetheless altered Jewish life. At synagogue this past Saturday, there were fewer handshakes, more elbow bumps. On the walk there, I stopped to chat with a friend; we tapped shoes as we headed our separate ways. March of the Living and Birthright Israel trips have been postponed – and, who knows, Passover might be next. You’ve probably found yourself imagining what you’d do if you were in Heilman’s spot, perhaps even preparing for it.

What went unmentioned by Heilman are the after-effects of Israel’s March 2 election. That is understandable, even commendable, because health comes first. The omission also speaks to the importance of not playing politics with a possible pandemic, a message that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin underscored over the weekend. “I know about politics,” he said, “and this is far, far from politics.”

Nonetheless, the world of Israeli politics remains in a lockdown of its own, post-election, after voting left the country divided once again. With most of the major players vowing before Israel’s third election in less than a year that there would not be a fourth consecutive ballot, coalition manoeuvrings have quickly intensified. Two potential scenarios could see either a unity government composed of Likud and Blue and White – the two parties that won the most seats – or a Blue and White coalition with Avigdor Liberman’s secularist Yisrael Beytenu party and the Labor-Gesher-Meretz left-wing trifecta, with help from the Joint List of mostly Arab parties.


Rivlin is expected to announce on March 17 whether Blue and White Leader Benny Gantz will get the first crack at forming government, or if Benjamin Netanyahu, the still-prime minister whose Likud party won the most seats on March 2, receives the honour. The same day, Netanyahu’s criminal trial on breach of trust, bribery and fraud charges is set to begin. And in the interim, Bibi’s opponents may move forward with legislation that would bar any member of the Knesset under indictment – a.k.a. Netanyahu – from forming government. In other words, hold on tight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.